6 October 2015

Philippe Besson: Un instant d'abandon (2005)

Philippe Besson, it seems, can always be relied upon to produce a very good outsider novel, and Un instant d'abandon is no exception. This is told from the point of view of Thomas, an Englishman of about thirty who has lived most of life in Falmouth, Cornwall. He paints a very gloomy picture of the town, although the description of the Chain Locker pub (and there really is one in Falmouth) made me realise Besson has never set foot in a pub in England. An English pub where you order a coffee, sit down, are served, and pay afterwards? And which also serves grenadine? I can't for a second imagine such French café style service in a pub in Falmouth.

Anyway, to cut to the quick. Thomas has been something of a weedy person physically, injured his leg as a child and suffered forever after from torment by his male school counterparts but earned great respect from Marianne, whom he married and had a child by, or rather didn't as he's infertile, although Marianne didn't know that, so her infidelity is ostensibly only known by her. But it makes for a problematic marriage made even more problematic when Thomas kills the son who isn't his biological son.

In fact he doesn't really kill him as such, he's just a little negligent taking him out to sea when warned against it, and the child just dies accidentally, although Thomas (rather harshly, I thought) gets five years for a kind of homicide after he's, well, just released a dead body (never found) to the sea. But then he didn't defend himself in court.

And after prison Thomas returns to the completely empty home his wife has left – perhaps to go with her lover: who knows or cares – to the only place he's really known, but to almost universal ostracism, to hurtful oblique comments in the Chain Locker. Almost universal, but there are two understanding souls: both are outsiders of sorts.

First there's Rajiv, the Pakistani from whose shop Thomas buys a large number of things from, and who invites Thomas into his private 'sanctuary' for cup after cup of tea, sessions during which Rajiv listens almost like – I couldn't help thinking – a psychiatrist.

And then there's Betty, an attractive girl of twenty-one who's viewed Thomas for a long time on the sly, recently watched him coming and going from the Chain Locker, identifies a fellow outsider and will have no truck with the mindless ostracism. With great pain, she listens to Thomas in the Chain Locker (and surely prison is suggested in that phrase?), hears of the initial madness he underwent inside, of the violence and egoism of survival. It's difficult for her to listen to Thomas, but she does so because she loves him, as she confesses.

How does Thomas react to this? Well, Betty has also said that she has a young child, so surely he has a ready-made family, a working partner and an end to all the outsiderdom?

Alas, Thomas can't accept the invitation to love and possible happiness and has been waiting for the return of Luke, the guy he met in prison, and who comes to join him in Falmouth. Throughout, the novel had been leaning away from the world of heterosexuality: 'Le désir des femmes, je l'ai égaré, si je l'ai jamis eu': ('Desire for women, I lost it, if I ever had it'); 'Non, la connaissance d'une autre ne m'a vraiment manqué': ('No, I never really missed the knowledge of another woman'). Besson is a world away from the explicit gay sex of some novels, but (rather differently) more tilted to the coded homosexual languages of decades ago. Just a shame he's never been to an English pub though, as he'd have been far better equipped to describe one in the novel.

My other posts on Philippe Besson:

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Philippe Besson: Un garçon d'Italie
Philippe Besson: En l'absence des hommes | In the Absence of Men
Philippe Besson: La Trahison de Thomas Spencer
Philippe Besson: Son frère

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